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A River damned


Every child deserves to grow up — to laugh, to love, to cry, to hurt, to learn. But the world is cruel, and not every child gets what they deserve — some fall to cancer, some are doomed by birth complications, some are lost to an unfortunate twist of fate. Baby River was not one of these children; it was the failure of the Philippine justice system that cut her young life short.

Her story begins long before she was born, before her mother, Reina Mae Nasino, even knew that a clump of cells was slowly growing into a person inside her womb. Reina, who was an activist working for the urban poor group Kadamay, was arrested in November 2019 for allegedly possessing firearms. The older Nasino and her lawyers claimed that the arrests were politically motivated and that the firearms were planted by the police. Little baby River, at this point still the size of an orange, couldn’t possibly have known about planted evidence and political arrests in the Philippines (more about it here).

River had no way of knowing that roughly northeast of where she was, a virus was spreading that would soon cause a global health crisis. She was oblivious to the turmoil of the world outside her mother’s womb. By the time she was kicking, her mother was afraid for the little baby’s life. The coronavirus had spread to the Philippines, and the cramped and unsanitary conditions of Manila City Jail were not an ideal place to be pregnant in even without an ongoing global pandemic. Reina Mae would plead the courts for freedom, for house arrest, for relief from the cruel and inhuman conditions that she was held in, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.

Baby River Nasino would be born in Dr. Fabella Memorial Hospital on July 1, underweight, frail and malnourished. Mere days later, before either mother or child could recover from the stress of labor, they returned to the grit and grime of the jail cell they had spent the pregnancy in. After six weeks the two were separated; River, deprived of her mother’s care and breastmilk, developed diarrhea and eventually pneumonia despite her grandmother’s best efforts. Reina Mae pleaded with the courts time and again to be allowed to visit and care for her ailing daughter, but to no avail. Even on the little child’s deathbed, Reina was deprived of the right to say goodbye to her dying daughter by the courts whose decrees had doomed her, who blamed “a lack of manpower.”

Ironically, when Baby River’s funeral rites were being performed, the police seemed to have plenty of manpower to spare. They sent a contingent of at least 20 armed officers to guard Reina Mae, who wore what looked like a Haz-Mat suit and a restrictive set of handcuffs. This stands in sharp contrast to the experiences of politicians convicted of much graver crimes — Zaldy Ampatuan, who has been declared guilty of 57 counts of murder, was allowed to attend his daughter’s wedding unchained and unharassed. Reina Mae, whose sole unproven “crime” was possession of a firearm, was treated like a high-risk criminal.

This may seem cruel, excessive and unnecessary, but that’s only because it is. And it doesn’t end there: the funeral procession, which tradition demands must be slow and somber for the benefit of the walking grievers, was cut short when the police speeded away in the funeral hearse towards the poor child’s final resting place.

Baby River was a martyr, and in a twisted way she was buried like one. She was mourned by a heartbroken mother and many grieving supporters, and escorted to her final resting place by men in uniform. But these men were not there to honor her. They were a show of force, a warning against those who are outraged at her deaths and the deaths of many like her. They were also the front-line officers of the justice system which, at every level, failed to grant Baby River Nasino and her poor mother the justice they deserved.

River Nasino was not the first young victim of this government’s cruelty. She joins Kian De Los Santos, Althea Barbon, and many more. And if we do nothing, she will not be the last. Let River be the rallying cry of those who demand justice from our justice system. Let her be a reminder of the abuses of those who are sworn to protect and serve. End the red-tagging. End the politically motivated incarcerations. Improve the sanitary conditions of jails. And above all, #OustDuterte.



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